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Paul Vallely: Political U-turns reveal deeper truths

05 May 2023

Paul Vallely examines a cross-party phenomenon that is often misunderstood

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LAST week, the Home Office refused permission for 24 NHS doctors from Sudan to board aircraft evacuating UK residents trapped in war-torn Khartoum. Only under pressure from MPs did it let them board. A few days later, the Labour Party withdrew its policy to abolish tuition fees for university students.

The political U-turn is an interesting phenomenon. Often, it is a sign of weakness, incompetence, or evidence of policies that have not been thought through properly in advance. Liz Truss sacking her Chancellor after her “Kama-Kwasi” mini-budget is a case in point. The new Chancellor, Jeremy Hunt, effectively ditched her entire political programme.

Some U-turns simply follow from a change of personnel. Ms Truss announced that she would follow Donald Trump by moving Britain’s embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem (News, 14 October 2022). Rishi Sunak junked the idea.

Other flip-flops result from internal party politics. Mr Sunak ditched his policies on fracking, housing targets, wind farms, and online safety, after rebellions by his own backbenchers. He reversed his decision to snub the COP27 climate conference after it was revealed that Boris Johnson was attending (News, 4 November 2022). Some U-turns whiff of panic.

But, sometimes, change comes when politicians bump up against reality. Sir Keir Starmer this week dropped the Corbyn Labour election-manifesto commitment to scrapping student tuition fees. Given the nation’s parlous finances, the idea seems unaffordable. “When the facts change, I change my opinion,” as the economist John Maynard Keynes supposedly said.

Similarly, the Tories realised that their Schools Bill was unworkable, their plan to house asylum-seekers in cruise ships violated the 1951 Refugee Convention, and the promise to scrap all EU-derived law by the end of 2023 was undeliverable. Almost 4000 EU laws will remain on the statute book. Brexit was always more of an emotional slogan than a coherent plan.

The public takes a fairly grown-up view of all this. A YouGov poll earlier this year suggested that, while 30 per cent of voters thought that U-turns were a negative thing, 42 per cent saw them as a sign of a listening government. Nearly two-thirds of older voters saw them as a sign that politicians were responsive rather than reckless.

Yet U-turns also tell us something else.

The Home Office’s initial insistence on closing the doors of evacuation aircraft in the face of Sudanese doctors who have worked for years in British hospitals — and who had been visiting their families for Eid — lays bare something callous in this Government’s attitude to people from overseas.

When Richard Sharp resigned last week as chairman of the BBC, he said that he was quitting “to prioritise the interests of the BBC”, and to avoid becoming “ a distraction from the corporation’s good work”. It is a pity that he didn’t say that several months ago — when The Sunday Times first broke the news that he had been appointed after helping Mr Johnson to secure an £800,000 loan guarantee (27 January). Coming after the Heppinstall report found him guilty of two breaches of the rules, his comments sounded a good deal less high-minded.

Sometimes, it is what political figures say before a U-turn which reveals their true instincts and intuitions rather than what they say after their policy has been turned upside down.

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